Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Visit to Thenur

*** I had gone on a school visit to a school in a hamlet of Nathakadu, near Trichy, to spend time with a primary school Head teacher and understand his roles and challenges...the following is a report on the same***

Nathakadu primary school
Pachamuthu from Payir (, who takes care of providing assistance to government schools in Thenur and its neigbouring villages, drove me through a single lane dirt road in a TVS-50, past vast swathes of sunflower fields and tens of kids by the roadside gaping at the newcomer to the village of Nathakadu in Perambalur district, TN. He drops me at the Nathakadu Adi Dravidar Primary school and wishes me luck as he leaves for the high school nearby to teach math. He is a support teacher appointed by Payir and moves around different schools teaching math.

The Nathakadu school currently has two rooms, one serving as the Head Teacher’s room as well as a classroom, and the other being used as two more classrooms and the kitchen. It is a school for the Adi Dravidar (Dalit) community and has 78 children. The Head teacher (HT) is currently one of three teachers in the school. The other two are staffed by Payir temporarily. I was introduced to Mr Selvanayagam - the head teacher for the past four years - who was quite a garrulous personality and had no qualms in inviting me in and making me feel at ease. He of course was keen on hearing why I was there and I explained that I wanted to learn about the schooling system and the challenges faced and the roles played by Head teachers around the country.

The room at that time had about 30 children, from the 4th and the 5th standards, and all of them were amused by my presence and were working overtime to catch my attention and to giggle and salute a ‘Good morning’ sir. The girls all had a single thread of jasmine hanging in their heads and sat by one side of the classroom while the boys sat at the other side. 

The HT took some time in explaining to me the setup of the school – single or two teachers most of the time, not enough government support in hiring new teachers, parents that are largely illiterate and either don’t care or don’t have enough time to care about their children’s education, how they barge in most of the time and blame him for not ensuring that other children didn’t steal pencils and books from their children and so on.  He was clearly agitated at being buffeted on both sides – from the government and by the parents – and expressed helplessness. ‘I want to help, I want to make this school world class, but I come to school daily unsatisfied and knowing that nothing good is going to turn up, and leave the place empty knowing that nothing much has improved.’ 

When he finally started his classes, he made the 5th standard children sit atop two benches on either side of the classroom while the ones in the 4th standard remained seated on the ground. Phonetics was the theme of the morning and he started off by writing the alphabets and asking everyone about the sound each of those letters made. He had to shout quite a bit in order to be heard above the din of the next class, the two rooms were separated by three-fourth of a wall leading to easy sound transfer between the classes.

His tone was quite rough most of the times, but at the same time, that isn’t to say that the kids feared him totally. They carried on their gay ways of talking incessantly, bullying each other, and even doing things totally unrelated to what as being taught in class. And many were not scared to get up and volunteer for answers – right or wrong – when he threw questions at the class, this again indicated to me that somewhere deep inside, the Head teacher had indeed built a good rapport with the kids.

Children were asked to write down words that were new to them from their textbooks and then to come up to the         board and pronounce them. The first word was ‘Surrounding’ and the HT made all of them pronounce the word syllable by syllable. Slowly he could see a pattern emerging where children came up to the board and blindly said ‘Sa-Sarround-Sarround ing.

He saw through the pattern of how they were just copying the sounds made by the earlier kids. He chided the class and said that they should pronounce each syllable…‘Ss-ssa-ssar-ssaro-ssaroun-ssaround-ssaround ing’ so that he knows that everyone understands what they are saying and how each letter’s individual sound plays a part in bringing about the sound for the word itself.

Though this was a good exercise, I felt that he could have gone on to other words and not stuck to the same word for almost 30 minutes. Not only did the kids, despite his efforts, see a pattern and just parrot what everyone else was saying, there could have been more learning about more letters that sadly didn’t happen. There were multiple instances where he tended to get stuck on to a single example or idea and spent a lot of time working on that. Most of these ideas did not warrant that much attention.

Soon it was time for an interval (11 AM). One of the girls got up and rang the bell prompting an instant burst of energy from both the rooms.

Post interval
The children again assembled in the class and one girl was taking time to settle down. Unfortunately for her, she was right next to the HT who spotted her fidgeting.

‘Radha, did you have a bath today?’ he asked the poor girl who forgot all about fidgeting hearing his voice.

‘Yes, sir,’ she said barely audible to anyone.

The HT caught her by her head and pulled her to the center of the classroom.

‘Is this the face of someone who has had a bath?’ he asked looking at me. I silently prayed he was not expecting me to answer that question. Honestly, she did look very dull, but I am no one to judge if she had had a bath or not.

‘Please tell the truth, did you really have a bath?’

By this time Radha had psyched out and answered even more softly. ‘Yes, sir, I did.’

There were other occasions too when he embarrassed children in front of the class and the victims, unable to do anything about it, squirmed and tried everything to avoid the harsh spotlight of shame. The HT was considerably sarcastic when he spoke to the kids and had a loud voice that perennially sounded angry, though I suspect he was not really angry all the time. I guess the children too understood this and so were not scared of his voice or sarcasm. But every once in a while he flares up and this either heightens his sarcasm leading to him shaming children in public or he goes BAM and lands a heavy one on someone’s back.

School was let off for lunch at 12:30 pm and resumed at 2:00 pm. Afternoon was devoted to math where he taught the concept of the unit’s digit. Once he was considerably satisfied that they understood, he moved on to adding single digit numbers.

‘Their basics are very poor,’ he told me. ‘What they needed to have studied 2 years back they are struggling with even now. In this situation, I feel very depressed that I am unable to make my full contribution to the class as I have to first build their basics and only then move on to what I need to teach them at this level.’

Halfway through the class, it occurred to me that considering the harsh conditions the man was putting up with, his ability to focus for long periods of time was pretty incredible. Not once did he even show signs of wearing down or feeling sleepy. His energy level during the last hour was the same as what it was during the first.

I then asked him about the classrooms and if the government is considering upgrading to new classes. There has been some progress in this regard and the government has sanctioned Rs 20 lakhs for new classrooms and there is another private donor agency that has agreed to donate Rs 10 lakhs. So the HT has, along with the help of Payir, started construction of the classrooms. He had also, in the year 2009, overseen the construction of toilets in the school. This project was assisted by Payir which had convinced the District collector into spending Rs 20,000 for the project and had convinced a few other NGOs to pool in money for the remaining Rs 12,000. 

The HT tries to maintain good relationships with everyone around him and this stands him in good stead when he needs help for the school. No wonder his school is one of the major recipients of aid from Payir.

Interesting conversation with a parent

A parent comes up to the HT. (She has two daughters and one son, and except for one of the daughters, the other two children have been skipping school for long)

Mother: ‘Saar (sic), someone stole my children’s notebooks.’

Saar: ‘Is it? When and where?’

Mother: ‘Don’t know when but Abirami and Rahul* didn’t bring the books back home.’

Saar: ‘When was the last time your children came to school? Only Mozhi has been coming to school regularly,’ he said pointing to a girl sitting in class.

‘Mother: ‘I know it has been two weeks, but I have been trying to send them to school. They will come from tomorrow for sure.’

Saar: ‘So why are you not disciplining them at home?’

Mother: ‘I am, saar. HE (Spoken as ‘Avar’ in Tamil, respectfully referring to her husband and head of family) whacks them daily, but nothing seems to be affecting them. You should also be more careful in school, saar. And keep an eye on who is stealing and misbehaving’

Saar: ‘Amma, I did not even know of this theft. Mozhi, come here. Did your sister or brother tell you about loss of books?’

Mozhi (walks up to the master and folds her hand tightly, almost at chest level): ‘No saar.’

Saar (with triumph in his eyes): ‘Your children did not tell me about the theft, nor did they tell this girl. Then how am I even to know about the loss?’

Mother: ‘But saar, still you should keep a keener eye in class.’

Saar (A brilliant argument hits him suddenly): ‘Ok, tell me this. How come the one child of yours that is most regular to school has never lost her books and the ones that hardly enter the school campus have both lost theirs?’ He pauses for effect, which is not lost on the mother. She knows that saar has a point here and grins sheepishly.

Saar (not wanting to lose momentum): ‘yes, smile now. It is easy to blame “saar” for everything, but if you are strict at home, all these will not happen. Ask HIM (referring to her husband again) to whack the kids a little bit more, meanwhile I will check if someone has taken the books.’

Meeting dismissed!

Next two days

Day 2 begins with complaints from the children to the HT. Complaints seem to be the order of the day.

‘Saar he is kicking me’

‘Saar, he is taking my pencil’

And believe it or not

‘Saar, he is not clapping hands when you told everyone to clap’

Morning session is on Environmental studies where animals and their natural habitats are discussed. But before that, the HT seems to be in the mood for a pep talk so he asks the children why they don’t study at home and why they don’t read their lessons on time. He then asks them when they can complete reading a lesson he had asked them to read the previous week itself. He points at a girl who says that she will complete them by 2 pm that day. He then goes around the entire class asking them the same question. Each child gets up, folds his or her hands and mentions a time broadly ranging between noon and 3 pm. But by the time the HT was assured about the reading exercise, 25 minutes were past and he unhurriedly got back to Environmental studies.

Uh oh! Bunking I-Day is not cool!
The HT has contrasting ways of handling children and I am positive that he is oblivious of this. On the one hand,, he not only encourages the children but also forces them at times if he finds them too reluctant, to walk up and face the class. On the other, there seems to be an unwritten rule where every child should fold his or hands when talking. And the kids fold their hands so tightly and close to their chest that I doubt if they are able to focus on anything else but that activity.

The assembly session on the 16th of August sees him give a dressing down to the students that missed the Independence-day ceremony of the school in order to attend the one at the Government High school nearby. Further questioning made the HT understand that the movie songs that were allegedly played in the other school attracted the kids there. He let off the kids with a severe warning not to do this again and to respect the school in which they studied.

About the HT

He is a man of habit when dealing with school affairs. Being in a village, buses leave and arrive exactly at the appointed minute and that enables him to reach the school by 8:45 am, a good one hour journey from his home. He gathers a group of boys and girls and gets them to clean the classrooms. The girls know exactly what to do; they gather the brooms and dust the floor, some of them open the windows. The boys go out and smoothen the land outside the classrooms and pick up paper scraps. This ends at around 9:15 and though the teachers report by 9, they hardly seem to be/want to be in control and are quite content in letting the HT conduct the proceedings. Assembly follows next and the kids gather inside the classroom to escape the severe heat outside. After prayer songs, three out of six children standing at the head of the group shout out ‘Stand-at-ease’ and ‘Attention’ alternately a couple of times. The remaining three take turns in stating a verse from Thirukkural, saying a proverb and a general knowledge fact.

The Head teacher then explains the kural and elaborates a bit on the proverb. The teachers try to shoo the restless children into silence and usually this is in vain. Once back in class, he cleans the board, changes the day and date on it, and starts off writing with a ‘Pillayar shuzhi’. On a similar note, he leaves school exactly at 3:45 pm to catch the 4 pm bus back home.

His desk is almost always neat and clean, attendance registers (there are 5 of them, one for each class) are kept in impeccable condition, and all the stationary are locked up in the almirah. Students hit the bell using the mallet announcing interval and lunch breaks. There are some that are even being trained for doing this, they made mistakes a couple of times gonging the bell thrice instead of twice bringing in immediate censure from the HT. But at the same time, good behaviour like finishing homework on time, bringing to school a sibling that has been bunking classes for long, following what is being said in class, all earn the students extra stars, apparently for CCE.

Both in the way he teaches class and in the way he talks to children, a good understanding of child psychology would go a long way in him being more effective. Right now, his efforts, no matter how noble his intentions, were proving to be counter-productive as the children either feared embarrassment when he spoke to them or could not see his point at all and just stared at him and nodded whether they understood a concept or not.

There are quite a few examples which displayed the HT’s desire to improve the way the school functions and also the learning of the children. During my last session there, the evening of the 16th of August, he suddenly requested me to start up the PC that lay dormant in a corner of the room and teach the kids basics of computers. Since there was no power, I ran the machine on UPS and taught for exactly 30 minutes before the UPS died. Fifteen minutes before closing time, he dismissed the class and urged me to ‘advise’ the teachers to perform better in class. I told him that they were the more experienced lot and that I was in no position to comment on their performance. He bought that reluctantly but still gathered the teachers together and we had a general discussion on how we could make the school better.

All said and done, the man works under intense pressure and quite a bit of constraints few of them listed below:
  • ·         Severely under-staffed
  • ·         The two teachers that are present need to be trained in the art of handling children at the primary level
  • ·         Lack of interest from the villagers to school related activities
  • ·         Poor infrastructure
  • Lack of electricity for most part of the working day (Heat was up at 40 degree Celsius)

Some pictures from the trip: